Each year, a new crop of rookies plays their first ever National Hockey League game in the blue, green and white of a Vancouver Canucks jerseys. Sometimes these players are part of the future of the franchise, taking the first strides of a long NHL career. Other times, they’re warm bodies filling an empty spot in a midseason lineup, with the small hope that something might click at the NHL level.
Last season had plenty of instances of both, with a total of nine players getting their first taste of NHL action. Among them were future core pieces of the Canucks, like Jake Virtanen and Ben Hutton; players whose futures have yet to be decided, like Brendan Gaunce and Andrey Pedan; and players who were there just because, like Alex Friesen.
Let’s look ahead to the 2016-17 season and speculate on which Canucks prospects might make their NHL debuts this time around.
I’ve broken my selections into five groups, based on the perceived likelihood that they’ll suit up in the NHL this season: guaranteed, highly likely, probably, possibly, and longshots.
Anton Rodin’s name has been brought up so frequently this offseason, and so often in regards to which line he will play on or how many goals he will score, that it’s easy to forgot that the speedy Swede has never played an NHL game before.
Even so, this will be Rodin’s eighth season of professional hockey. Rodin played two seasons in the SHL as a teenager, followed by two in the AHL, before retreating back to Sweden. While there’s a persistent (and lazy) narrative circulating that Rodin “couldn’t cut it” in the AHL before (no doubt because he wasn’t going #tothenet, or something of that nature), the reality involves a promising skillset smothered by a series of frustrating injuries.
Rodin showed a promising progression in his three most recent seasons in Sweden, including the well known final year in which he led the league in points prior to a nasty injury, and went on to become the league’s MVP despite playing just 33 games. While that certainly doesn’t mean that he’s going to be an NHL MVP, it’s still an impressive accomplishment. Previous winners of this award include Jakob Silfverberg and Mats Zuccarello, playing that have since had success as offensive middle six NHL players.
Stecher and Edler with assists on Rodin’s goal. That’s three points for Stecher and three assists for Edler. pic.twitter.com/5iwc3oEk3Y
— Vancouver Canucks (@Canucks) September 29, 2016
Rodin was one of the Canucks best players in the 2016 preseason, with two goals and five points in five games, but his debut looks like it will be put on hold, as he is going to start the season on the Injured Reserve, following a set back with his surgically repaired knee.
Few Canucks prospects were riding as high as defenceman Troy Stecher over the past few weeks. The Richmond native was easily one of the best players for the Canucks at the annual Young Stars tournament and went on to be one of the best defencemen during the exhibition season, earning the attention of everyone from fans to media to Canucks management.
Stecher ran into a few problems however, at least one of which was well beyond his control. Due to the upcoming expansion draft, NHL GM’s are forced to make odd player personnel decisions, like keeping Alex Biega in the NHL in an effort to get him to the requisite amount of games played to expose him to the expansion team.
Stecher also peaked a little too early. While his preseason debut was enough to net him his own fan club in Vancouver, and many fans stayed on that bandwagon throughout training camp (vis-a-vis the primacy effect in some part), I’d postulate that his play dipped after that – if only to the level of looking like he belongs. Management could view this dip as regressing to his natural level as the NHL competition increased. In contrast, Ben Hutton last year only got stronger as the preseason went on and peaked in the final game.
Regardless, Stecher looks like he’s come out of college ready for the NHL, and it’s likely only a matter of time before he gets his chance. Canucks coach Willie Desjardins even said that he expects to see Stecher in the NHL again – which to me makes him a pretty likely candidate for a debut.
“We talked a lot about it. He had a good camp and he did everything we asked. He surprised us. We’ll see him again.” Desjardins on Stecher.
— Vancouver Canucks (@Canucks) October 10, 2016
The diminutive defender’s weekend in Penticton proved to be something of a showcase for his strengths and weaknesses. His offensive prowess in undeniable, and was on full display as he ran power play units, blasted point shots, and even scored a pretty goal on an odd-man rush. Unfortunately, the warts of his game were also present – namely, some sporadic confusion in the defensive zone, positional breakdown, and the occasional rushed pass, like the one that missed Mackenze Stewart and ended up in the back of his net.
Still, Subban is the most dynamic offensive threat form the back end in the Canucks’ organization, and it’s in the Canucks best interest to get his defensive game up to snuff for an appearance in the NHL. As with Stecher, the Canucks’ brain trust also spoke regarding Subban’s NHL future, remarking that if he continues to work on his defensive game, he will see NHL time.
Benning on Subban: “He still needs to work on defending at his size. He has to continue to improve on that, then he’ll get an opportunity.”
— Canucks Now (@CanucksNow) September 19, 2016
Speaking of Stecher, it is likely that these two will be at odds with one another. They’ve been compared since Stecher was signed, with some suggesting that it was impossible for them to coexist, while others went as far as to postulate that the Stecher acquisition was to replace Subban – an odd thought considering that Subban is still the more dynamic prospect.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not impossible to have two “undersized” defencemen on one roster, especially if they’re both offensively gifted. But there are only so many spots in the lineup available, so whichever way you look at it, Stecher and Subban will be competing with each other for an NHL opportunity.
Up until this preseason, LaBate had flown largely under the radar in Vancouver, though he made his presence known in Utica. Last year, in his rookie professional season, the former 101st overall pick put up 10 goals and 20 points in 66 games, bested only by Jordan Subban among rookies. He showed some nice hands on this preseason pass to Tuomo Ruutu.
That’s some kind of shot from Ruutu. Assist to LaBate. pic.twitter.com/L7yYll6qwi
— Vancouver Canucks (@Canucks) October 3, 2016
While the former University of Wisconsin forward isn’t a top prospect by any means, he is a hard worker and physical player. He might just be the type of player that received a call up as a reward for strong play in the American League, in the vein of Mike Zalewski and Alex Friesen last season.
Throughout the summer, no article regarding Cassels could resist mentioning the terrible rookie season that he had in Utica. Now as we head into the fall, no article about Cassels can resist mentioning that he’s ready to move on from talking about his terrible rookie season. In Penticton, Cassels put his money where his mouth is, where he was among the Canucks’ best forwards. Although he didn’t always dazzle, he looked to be a tournament possession player, a reliable defensive presence, and a leader out on the ice.
Nation overlord Thomas Drance graced this blog with his presence a few weeks back and left behind a lovely article detailing the return of Cassels’ mobility, underscoring Cassels’ positive outlook as well as the fact that he objectively looks like a stronger, more mobile, and more dynamic player on the ice.
He’s even got that edge back that he was known for in junior, as he was involved in nearly every scrum and was often seen getting in the faces of s#&$ disturbers like Matthew Tkachuk. That’s the Cassels that we used to know, and the one from which we’ve been awaiting a return.
If Cassels is able to get his game back as he heads into his second professional season, it’s certainly not out of the question for the Canucks to reward him with a call up in the latter half of the season.
Despite the fact that he has yet to make his NHL debut, Ashton Sautner has already received an NHL call up: last December the Canucks brought Sautner up to sit in the press box for a game following a slew of injuries of defence – though of course he never actually got to play.
While Sautner doesn’t put up the same inflated point totals as Subban, he does have a more developed defensive game, which is likely why he got the call over Subban last year (I wouldn’t count on that happening again however).
This season, I would expect that Sautner would again require a slew of injuries at the NHL level in order to see NHL action, but if he continues to be a steady presence on the farm, management may want to reward him.
Barring either an unbelievably strong rookie performance, or a series of decimating injuries in the crease, there’s really no reason to expect Thatcher Demko in the NHL this year – which is of course why I’ve deemed him a long shot. The only situation in which I can see him making an NHL appearance is if he has a stellar year and the Canucks reward him as a black ace at the end of the NHL season with a start or two. Granted, that would only be if Utica misses the playoffs, and we’re hoping that won’t be the case.
Demko looked good during Vancouver’s training camp, and in Utica’s after that. He started for the Comets twice during their preseason, stopping 35 of 39 shots over four periods of action. Demko will be given a chance to compete with Richard Bachman for the starting role with the Comets.
Nearly every sentient fan in Vancouver has college standout Brock Boeser penciled into the opening night lineup for the 2017-18 season, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that we get a glimpse of him in Canucks colours earlier than that.
The Canucks will likely be looking to sign the Burnsville, Minnesota native right out of his sophomore season at the University of North Dakota, and depending how the timelines match up, they could offer to burn a year of his entry level contract by getting him into a game at the end of this year. The Calgary Flames did the same thing for Johnny Gaudreau at the end of the 2013-14 season, when he suited up for game number 82 for the Flames, a game which happened to be against the Canucks. The Canucks also brought Nikita Tryamkin over at the tail end of last season, allowing him to burn the first year of his entry level deal.
It’s still a bit of a long shot, but there is definitely precedent for such a move. Now if you thought there was hype around Nikita Tryamkin showing up here, imagine the reaction to Brock Boeser.
That about does it for the list of players that I could see having any shot in the NHL this year. If you’ve got any other players in mind, or you just want to tell me how wrong I am, let me know in the comments.